Are You Selling a Car or a Key?

Yesterday a friend and I were reading through Acts together. I got to expounding on Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, and I came up with an illustration I want to tell you about.

I was about to write “… that I want to share with you,” but I’m trying to purge purely religious terminology from my speech. If I can say something in more normal, American language, I’m going to. “I want to share …” is sales language. Christians use it, and salesmen use it. I don’t tell my wife I want to share with her unless I’m talking about chocolate. If I want to tell her something, I say, “Can I tell you something?”

Can you imagine? “Hi, dear. Welcome home. While I take your jacket and hang it up, would you like to share with me about your day?”

I think I’ll keep putting my rabbit trails in italics like that in the future. That way you can skip them if you don’t like them.

So anyway …

I was pointing out that Peter had a great opportunity, between verses 23 and 24, to tell those Jews that Jesus died for their sins. He didn’t take it!

In fact, none of the apostles took the opportunity. They loved to accuse the Jews of taking him with wicked hands and killing him (3:14-15; 10:39; 13:27-29). They didn’t seem to give any thought, however, to explaining why Jesus died. Every time they mention his death, they forget to point out that his death was a sacrifice and an atonement for sin.

I first saw this back when I was realizing that Protestants don’t care any more about what the Bible says than Jehovah’s Witnesses do. I’m so sorry to have to say that. I’m not really a brave man, but I am an honest man. One reason Protestants are so divided is that they love their traditions more than they love the Word of God. It is true and widespread. If 5% of Christians are really willing to drop their traditions for the truth of Scripture, I’d be surprised.

Anyway, as a Protestant myself, I was starting to question everything. Well, no, I wasn’t. I had been questioning everything for 7 years after I was unpleasantly introduced to the fact that Christians, forced to be together, can’t get along. They will choose isolation over fellowship with Christians from other traditions.

Maybe that’s gotten better over the last 30 years. It was terrible in 1983. (I’m still a Protestant, by the way, if you define that widely as “all those who protest the dominion of the Roman Catholic Church.”)

Anyway, I was doing a radio show at the time in Sacramento, and I decided that for one radio show I would outline the Protestant Gospel and compare it to the outline of the apostolic Gospel in Acts. I assumed there would be differences, but I had no idea of what I would find.

To outline the Protestant Gospel I bought 23 tracts at a Christian bookstore. It was all the tracts they had on the subject of salvation. Prime themes included:

  • Heaven is a free gift
  • Man is a sinner
  • Entering heaven has nothing to do with works
  • We have to trust Jesus

But the number one, prime thing, that everyone (including me) would never leave out is that Jesus died for our sins! Why, one can’t be saved without knowing that!

I was stunned that day to find out that as I outlined 12 sermons to the lost in the Book of Acts that the apostles left out the atonement of Jesus’ blood in every single one of them.

My friend asked me why this is true.

That radio program was over 20 years ago. I’ve had time to think this through. An illustration came to mind, and I used it.

“Because the apostles weren’t describing the key,” I answered. “They were describing the car.”

She answered, “Huh?”

I explained. When a salesman wants to sell you a car, he talks about the car. He explains what the car is like, how comfortable or fast it is, and what kind of warranties you get on it. Once you are sold on it, only then does he give you the key.

Okay, that’s not a perfect illustration because I’m ignoring the test drive, but you get the point … I hope.

The atonement may explain how the new covenant and salvation are brought about, but it does not explain Jesus, and if a person wants to be justified before God, only Jesus can justify him. He is the Path. No one comes to the Father except through him.

So the apostles described Jesus. They focused on the car, the thing the hearer wants to know about. They didn’t waste time explaining that the key unlocks the car doors and allows a switch on the steering column to turn. Once that switch is turned, electrical energy from the battery flows to the starter, which then pushes a gear into hole, meshing with a bigger gear called a flywheel, and turns it to get the crankshaft in the engine turning, etc.

That description sounds amazing. Truly, it was a genius who came up with the combustion engine. The working of its parts is a marvel of both simplicity and engineering. What can be done with it is astounding compared to what could be done before it.

But all of it is irrelevant to buying a car. Every car has an ignition and a motor. If the functioning of the motor is all there is to it, then let’s buy the cheapest car because they’re all the same.

The apostles were the same with Jesus. If Jesus died for our sins, and a machine is set in motion that reconciles us with God, then wonderful. I’m headed to the bar, I’ll tell my buddy there about it.

But if Jesus was raised from the dead by God to prove that he is Lord and the Anointed King of God’s people; and if he can forgive sins; and if he will judge all men on the last day; now there’s something to talk about. Now there’s something to do.

And that was the reaction to the apostles’ Gospel. What must we do? The Jews said it to Peter on the day of Pentecost, and the Philippian jailer said it to Paul. Apparently, the Ethiopian eunuch had asked Philip, or been told by Philip, as well because he asked to be baptized once he heard.

The atonement is real, and it is described in the apostles’ letters repeatedly. The atonement is the most important event in history (other than creation?). It is important for Christians, if we want to learn about the faith, to understand that we were saved by the blood of Jesus. The precious blood which purchased us should motivate us to a zealous holiness, says Peter (1 Pet. 1:13-23).

Describing the atonement to the lost, however, is like a car salesman trying to sell the key rather than the car. We are describing the car, King Jesus, who can save them from their sins and from death, who is the Lord of the living and the dead, and who has the right to call all men to repentance. If he is lifted up, then he will draw all men to him.

I know by quoting that Scripture (Jn. 12:32) I am pulling it out of context. That doesn’t matter to me. Read the Gospels and the apostles’ letters. They pulled Scriptures out of context regularly. The old adage that “a text without a context is a pretext” is only true in certain situations. Try looking up the context of Isaiah’s prophecy of the virging birth (7:14).

I hope that helps. Was it clear enough? Questions about the implications of this?

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2 Responses to Are You Selling a Car or a Key?

  1. paulfpavao says:

    Lol. I guess I missed a few bits of religious terminology.

    In this case, however, the terminology you mention is found in pretty much all Bible translations. In such cases, I feel obligated to work on properly defining the terminology, not changing it. The goal is to help people, and people are going to read “justified” and “saved” in their Bible. I would like to help folks know what justified means, and to know that they have to ask “saved from what” every time it comes up in the Bible.

    I try to avoid using salvation when the meaning is not clear. I am prone to using “saved” to refer to the born again experience (re: Eph. 2:1-10), so if you catch me using it undefined, that’s almost certainly what I mean. I think that’s Scriptural practice, too, and the same assumption can be made in the Scriptures unless “from wrath” is added, or someone says “shall be saved” as in “he who endures to the end shall be saved,” even though “by faith we are saved [already] by grace.”

    Thanks for pitching in. That was both engaging and useful.

  2. Felix Alexander says:

    I’m trying to purge purely religious terminology from my speech

    Onya. Great plan. I want to do it myself. But sometimes you have particularly gnarly ideas where the religious expression is so obvious, because you’re basically thinking about things in a special way when it comes to God. “The atonement may explain how the new covenant and salvation are brought about, but it does not explain Jesus, and if a person wants to be justified before God, only Jesus can justify him.”

    All the nouns in the first half, and “justify/justified” in the second half are purely religious.

    “The atonement” is a bit awkward because it refers to an effect—being reconciled to God—as a way of referring to how it was effected—the King’s execution on a cross. But how generic is the idea that underlies it? When I hear ransom theory, it’s often emphasising that the point is that the King died and did stuff while dead (in common law terms, something like suing the Devil for conversion).

    “Covenant” I think is just a treaty or an binding agreement.

    “Salvation” probably means whatever you want it to mean as long as it’s good. I know you think of salvation in two parts, but I don’t know which part is meant here.

    “Justification” is technically a term of ancient legal systems, but I’m willing to bet most of the time it’s used it’s completely divorced of those concepts and becomes a purely religious term. I understand it has the sense of winning a lawsuit. Perhaps “… and if a person wants to win in God’s court, only Jesus can make them win” is suitable?

    I think it’s clear that some of the ideas expressed in scripture are meant by analogy to concepts that were commonplace in the ancient world, but today are lost. Can we keep using the form of the analogy without even trying to make the base ideas that the analogy is built on available? We can’t change scripture to make it correspond to our own circumstances, but can we change the terms we use, the implicit analogies and metaphors, and use modern-day equivalents?

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